Dylan Evans is a mild-mannered British polymath, whose interests range from neuroscience to artificial intelligence. In April, though, he took the radical step of chucking his robotics professorship, selling his house, upping sticks and moving to deepest, darkest Scotland to launch what he calls the Utopia Experiment. Evans is convinced that the end is pretty well nigh, an apocalyptic prediction based on Thomas Homer-Dixon's theory that environmental, technological, political and economic crises will soon converge in a planet-wide perfect storm to bring about a complete collapse of civilization. Evans intends to be there to pick up the pieces in Utopia, which he describes as "a cross between Plato's Academy and The Beach." Utopia is populated by volunteers, each of whom brings with him/her a skill vital to the community's survival. Life in Utopia is, well, no utopia; at the moment, volunteers live in tents and survive mostly on pulses, potatoes and pasta.
Evans is no Luddite. In fact, he's quite keen on technology. "I became interested in robotics because I believed in the science-fiction world of robots, spaceships, artificial intelligence and supercomputers," he told The Independent newspaper. "But all of our incredible progress has only been possible because of an abundant supply of relatively cheap energy and a stable and benign environment. We've been very lucky. Like many scientists, I've become concerned that our luck is about to run out. Our economy cannot be stabilized; it's based on the idea of continual growth, so there'll be no leveling-off, but a huge decline of technological and material wealth. If that happens fast enough, it will be a collapse. What's the point in doing robotics, preparing for a future that you don't think is going to happen?"
Founding an alternative community is both a desperate and an optimistic act; desperate because it's an extreme vote of no confidence in 'the way things are,' and optimistic because it demonstrates a strong belief that things can -- and will -- get better (otherwise, what's the point of surviving?). I am pretty much 100 percent in the optimistic camp, and not just because I don't fancy living in a tent and eating pulses for the rest of my life. Yes, we have some serious problems, and things will no doubt have to get worse before enough people pull together to make them better. But take the issue of global warming; it's gone from "figment of liberals' imaginations" to cause celebre in just a few short years. Technology is both the cause of this particular problem as well as its solution. Evans is right that the global economy will have to find a new, more sustainable balance. But again, new technologies will be key to making that possible. So I'm optimistic that a glimpse of the abyss -- rather than actually taking the plunge -- will be enough to scare us into preserving the messy little utopia we already have.